One Friday in September Adara* finally went to the police station in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria, to report the rape of her 12-year-old son.
The boy had been suffering from repeated night terrors, she told officers. Upon examining him some months back, it had taken her a moment to digest what she had seen. He had a festering wound and his underwear was stained with semen, she told Al Jazeera.
Her son told her that a tailor in the neighbourhood and his friends had been abusing him in their shop since a partial coronavirus lockdown began in March. She knew the abusers. They were men in their early 20s who lived in the same community. The 12-year-old said he had been scared to tell anybody. The men gave him sweets and money and warned that if he said anything, they would kill his entire family, he said.
Adara knew a spiral of stigma and gossip would accompany her speaking out about such issues in the conservative community. Nevertheless, she decided to report the rape. But her battle had only just begun.
Hours after she left the police station, her neighbours had already heard about her visit through the community grapevine. By the time officers arrived with an arrest warrant, the five suspects had fled and gone into hiding.
A spokesperson for the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) at Kaduna State Command, which looks into child abuse cases, said the investigation was ongoing, with a manhunt on to find and arrest the alleged suspects.
Adara said the suspects’ relatives, who all live in the same area as her, told her the reputation of the community would be ruined by her report and urged her to drop the case. Meanwhile, her neighbours spread tales about her son, saying that he was “passed around”.
“The stigma is disgusting,” Adara says, speaking in her native language, Hausa. When her son goes outside to play, “neighbourhood kids tease him that he was pimped out”.
Adara faced a backlash from her family as well and has been ostracised since going to the police. “My husband’s family advised him to leave me, and now he has left. I am the only one looking after the kids,” says the mother of four.
“I know people in the community, that their children were raped and they did nothing. They said: ‘Oh, it’s a community thing’, but because I am standing up they are now standing against me,” she says.
“I want the government to fight them. This child is not just my child – it’s also the government’s child”.
Controversial new law
In September, Kaduna’s state governor, Nasir el-Rufai enacted a new law in the highly conservative, majority-Muslim state.
Males convicted of raping children under 14 will now be surgically castrated and executed while women convicts will have their fallopian tubes removed and be executed. For perpetrators who rape children over 14, the punishment is the same, but with life imprisonment instead of execution.
Under Nigeria’s federal law, rapists face between 14 years and life in prison. However, state legislators are allowed to impose their own terms.
“These drastic penalties are required to help further protect children from a serious crime,” El-Rufai said in a statement.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an independent Nigerian body, however, expressed concern that the law flouts the country’s 2017 Anti-Torture Act. That act outlaws “mutilation such as amputation of essential parts of the body such as the genitalia, ears or tongue and any other part of the body,” NHRC’s executive secretary, Anthony Ojukwu said in a statement.
“There can be no justification for torture, no exceptional circumstance whatsoever.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the laws “draconian”.
“Evidence shows that the certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, deters crime,” Bachelet said drawing on Nigeria’s low record on rape convictions.
According to the latest available crime data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, in 2017 there were 2,279 cases of rape and indecent assault reported to police – but no convictions.
Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), said there were just 32 successful rape prosecutions between 2019 and 2020 – alarmingly low in a country of more than 200 million people. The NAPTIP, which publishes a federal sex offenders’ register on its website, did not have separate data specifically on child rape.
The Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital at Kaduna State University cuts a large unimposing concrete structure against the city’s arid backdrop.
Dr Shuaibu Musa has been a consultant paediatrician here for almost eight years. On a Tuesday evening in September, he had just arrived home from work when an alert he received sent him right back to the hospital. A five-year-old boy had been admitted with diarrhoea. But the medical team suspected it was an assault.
Dr Musa has become used to such alerts. “The sort of abuses we see, you will be shocked,” he says.
Doctors here say they treat children who have been sexually abused every day. It is why Dr Musa and other professionals set up a committee to tackle such cases. Medically, treatment is often focused on the injuries sustained, as some attacks are violent.
On that particular night when he arrived at the ward, he discovered that the parents of the five-year-old were acting suspiciously. The father would not look him in the eye. “They said he was having diarrhoea with blood – now that’s not too common,” says Dr Musa. The symptoms were suggestive of anal rape.
Child victims of this type of rape sometimes lose the ability to control their bowel movements, which doctors had been trained to look out for. “When we probed and probed it turned out to be child sexual abuse.” The parents wanted it kept hidden but Dr Musa and his colleagues insisted on reporting it to the police. “Anytime you see one case and you allow that, it means all children there in that community are no longer safe,” he says.
Dr Musa has learned to bury the anger he feels. He has learned to remain level-headed amid the numerous assaults on children that he has had to treat: A little girl gang-raped during the Muslim Sallah festival; the abuse was so prolonged that she had lost consciousness by the time she was found. Another child forced into prostitution and whose HIV-positive baby, born from rape, was about to be sold. A father who raped his daughter and whose relatives were threatening the mother against reporting the abuse.
In all these cases the hospital had to intervene. “Primarily, our main aim is to protect the child and of course other children in the society.”
Public holidays have come to be known as the darkest days here because that is when the worst cases of abuse happen. During those days children are often in closer proximity to their abusers. Neighbours, friends and classmates are often perpetrators of child sex abuse in Nigeria, according to a 2014 UNICEF report that surveyed more than 4,000 children.
“Most of these abuses are by those [who are] around the child,” Dr Musa says. “Usually, you don’t see people coming from far to come and do abuse. It’s someone in that community.”
“Nobody wants you to report it,” he adds. “People don’t want their family names to be dragged through the mud. And because of that, they will rather keep quiet and say they will handle it within the community.” Last year, UNICEF renewed its call urging Nigeria’s federal government to create safe and secure outlets for children to report cases.
What struck Dr Musa from the patients he has treated was that many child victims went on to abuse others as adults, because psychological support was often never offered to them. Fewer than five out of 100 victims receive support, UNICEF’s report said, echoing Dr Musa’s findings.
It formed the basis of his academic paper and the implementation of a social welfare team trained to look after victims and their families at the hospital. It was also the outcome of these cases that gave him the most cause for concern. None ended in a conviction.
“The few that went to the courts ended up, according to them, settling it out of court again,” he notes.
Human rights groups see similar trends. “We’ve not been able to get a conviction out of the many rape cases that we’ve had,” Evon Benson-Idahosa says. She is the founder and executive director of Pathfinders Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Benin city and the capital Abuja that has been working to end sexual violence in Nigeria for nearly seven years.
A 2018 Nigerian study in the journal African Health Sciences found that only 34 percent of child sexual abuse cases were disclosed to anyone. For years, silencing around the issue of sexual assault has been widespread.
Society often embarrasses or blames the victim into silence, Benson-Idahosa tells Al Jazeera.
The social stigma associated with sexual abuse in the community means most families and victims do not report it immediately. Almost half of Nigerians live in extreme poverty – an indicator of the country’s immense wealth inequality. Some victims and their families, fearing stigmatization, victim-blaming and lack of money to bring cases to court, choose not to report the abuse to the authorities.